Dispatches | October 16, 2013

For the past decade, people have been telling me to shut up.

One winter day in high school, I stayed after to watch a Vermeer documentary for my Art History class. The deal was we got extra credit if we filled out a worksheet based on what we learned from the film. There were two boys sitting behind me who were making a valiant effort to be as disruptive as possible—throwing popcorn, talking and laughing loudly, you get the picture. They were classmates but not friends of mine. The teacher had left the room, so eventually I turned around and said, “Hey, can you stop?”

I can still see this plain as day. One of them stood up, and, out of nowhere, a hard, blazing look appeared in his eyes. It was maybe the first time I had ever seen such intense hatred and anger directed solely at me.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “You think you’re so smart. You think you’re smarter than everyone here. You need to SIT DOWN and SHUT UP.”

I was already sitting down, and I wasn’t speaking. He wanted me to be smaller than seated, to crouch, to disappear into the floorboards. He wanted me muted, silenced, gone.

Tears smarting in my eyes, I turned around and finished the worksheet without a word. I could still hear him muttering “shut up, just shut up” to me from behind.

In the decade since then, both men and women have explicitly and implicitly told me to shut up when I speak up about something they don’t want to hear. Being headstrong since childhood, I have never been very good at following their orders.

Moreover, I have come to learn since then that hostility and anger are often rooted in hurt and fear. But what had I done to hurt this classmate so much that he screamed such pent-up hatred towards me? What in that moment had made him so afraid?

Since my first blog post went up two weeks ago, my words and story were described on the comment section and on Facebook as: farcical, overly-sensitive, humorless, victimized, useless, anti-feminist, ageist, classist, “thin gruel,” fallacious, and “absolutely wrong.”

Men and women alike commented that I needed to embrace my femininity; to be more receptive to what others perceived as flattery even if it made me feel uncomfortable; to use “more visceral examples of sexism” (and believe me, I’ve had plenty) in my life to better illustrate my point; and to extend some grace to the man whose misguided remark hurt and stunned me.

While I expected some critique and backlash, I did not think that people would devote several hours of their day ripping apart my blog post and making crude assumptions about my character. Where did all this anger come from?

Reading the responses to my post taught me a lot about what it means to write about sexism in 2013. Several men and women had a knee-jerk reaction to my situation: either I must have been acting crazy in my story, or I must be misremembering, because it could not have possibly gone down the way I told it. In their minds, I clumsily transcribed the dialogue, overreacted with all of my lady emotions, or simply felt things that have no meaning since those readers chose not to empathize.

In fact, the only empathy that was present in those responses was directed towards the man at the bar. Readers defended him with a heated passion. I was told that I misjudged his words and that they “hoped this poor guy never reads this.” Likewise, whenever I tell my high school story, people will often brush it off as “Oh, he was probably just trying to get your attention” or “Boys will be boys!” In both of those instances, I was the one who was hurt and humiliated, and yet now I am also the one who needs to be kinder.

The biggest awareness I came away with from the haters was this: the story that I told is not my own. My authority as a writer is stripped away. Others are open to invalidate my experience and discredit my feelings, regardless of the fact that I was there—again—alone. Technically, it’s my word against theirs, but some readers continued to insist that I must be misinterpreting my own story.

What hurt or frightened people so much that they couldn’t just believe me? That they couldn’t say something like, “Hey, it sucks that this happened to you, and that benevolent and misguided sexism (as well as overt and visceral sexism) happens to countless women everywhere in a myriad of other ways, and maybe we should talk about it”?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but what I do know is that I have also received an outpouring of support, compassion, and insight from other men and women through sharing my story. To them, thank you. I’m not looking to change minds through argument; I’m looking for a connection. I’m looking for empathy and a conversation.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1931 speech “Professions for Women,” while describing the main challenges of writing seriously as a woman: “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful–and yet they are very difficult to define.” We’d like to think that we have progressed in the eighty-two years since then, but countless examples of women writers—including this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner Alice Munro (who was born the same year that Woolf gave her speech)—still deal with many of the same struggles. Likewise, award-winning author Laura Lippman writes about similar challenges here in her recent article titled “Female in Public.”

Our stories are important the way we experienced and remembered them, and the adverse responses I received to my post–not to mention the adverse responses to women writers around the world–are all the more reason why we should tell them.

Haters, hate on. I’m not shutting up anytime soon.